Suspiria (2018): Original Motion Picture Soundtrack Album Review
Written by Richie Corelli
Released by XL Recordings
Composed by Thom Yorke
2018, 80 minutes
Released on October 26th, 2018
In September of 2015, after filmmaker Luca Guadagnino confirmed plans to remake Dario Argento’s 1977 Suspiria, fans of the source material were immediately skeptical. That’s the nature of a remake. It invites the audience to draw comparisons. With its iconic set-design, color-drenched film work, signature tone, and cult-masterpiece status, Argento’s film cast an unescapable shadow. But Luca Guadagnino understood all of this. Suspiria 2018 is radically different than Suspiria 1977 and that’s why it succeeds. Where Argento’s film is flashy and ornamental, Guadagnino’s is dour and dry. Where Argento is bright and lurid, Guadagnino’s gray and restrained. Argento’s move shouts at his audience, Guadagnino’s whispers.
It’s the prog-rock band Goblin who do Argento’s shouting. The filmmaker matched the rich visual landscape in his original film with an overpowering aural experience. Goblin’s 1977 soundtrack is mixed so far to the front of the movie, it almost competes with what is happening onscreen. This is noisy music. Cattle-prod synths slice through layers of discordant guitars. Drums rattle like earthquakes. Bass jumps and smacks. A cacophony of instrumentation finds melodies and rhythms, only to repeatedly abandon and revisit them. Throughout the work, sinister echoey voices moan, howl, laugh, and hiss, “Witch!”
Guadagnino’s enlistment of Thom Yorke as his film’s composer again shows the director’s determination to further separate his movie from Argento’s. At this point in his career, and compared to Goblin, Yorke isn’t much of yeller. His delivery peaks and bounds, but the overall mood is calm, languid. While Goblin were relative newcomers when they partnered with Argento, Thom Yorke has been a mainstay of modern music for more than a quarter of a century. His band Radiohead, in particular, has been buzzing in the public ear for decades.
Radiohead’s popularity may create expectations, both good and bad. Familiarity breeds bias. To some extent, Suspiria reinforces this bias. Pieces of this score sound distinctively like Thom Yorke. That doesn’t mean that this isn’t appropriate for horror. Through their discography, Radiohead have never shied away from making spooky songs. According to Yorke, the Radiohead song "Morning Bell" is literally about a haunted house. And tracks like Like "Spinning Plates", "We Suck Young Blood", and "Burn the Witch" are all creepy in their way. But Suspiria runs deeper with the chills than Radiohead ever did.
Thom Yorke embraces traditional horror motifs throughout the record. The album opener, "A Storm That Took Everything", is thick with fright. Eerie tones layer and collapse into one another while stuttering and warped samples laugh in the far distance. The instrumental interlude, "Belongings Thrown in a River", untethers a melody that frequently reprises throughout the album. It’s a sinister note progression that wouldn’t be out of place on a Fabio Frizzi composition. "Sabbath Incarnation" revisits another thematic melody. Here, Yorke has a choir wordlessly chant the music. It’s a technique performed by different composers throughout the history of horror film scoring. Yorke’s contribution fits in perfectly.
Yet, this soundtrack goes past horror and into other territories. Guadagnino’s film is a period piece, taking place in Germany during late 1970s. Yorke hones in on this by bringing some Krautrock to the music. He also slides pieces of ambient, drone, and ‘60s psychedelica into the mix. Yorke has cited Richard D. James and Aphex Twin as an influence on his career. This has never been more evident than on the song "A Choir of One". Dark, but peaceful, this is a fourteen-minute track that shifts and unfolds with eerie textures that are similar to James’ 1994 masterpiece, Selected Ambient Works Volume II. This is a song that would have sounded out of place on one of Yorke’s other albums, but fits into the framework of Suspiria extremely well.
Yorke is a multi-instrumentalist. He plays piano and guitar. He’s a whiz at electronic compositions, a pro with drum machine programming. But his most renowned instrument is his voice. On Suspiria, he doesn’t suppress this. There are a number of vocal-led tracks, especially during the first half of the album. "Has Ended" could’ve found a home on one of the more adventurous Radiohead albums. A marching-band drum, performed by Yorke’s seventeen-year-old son, keeps time as slowly bending circuitry undulates alongside it, creating a hazy, trippy sound. Yorke’s lyrics make this a political track, which is not out of place considering the heavy emphasis that politics play in Guadagnino film. The lyrics on "Unmade" play to another side of the movie. Over light piano balladry and ethereal synths and choir vocals, Yorke emphasizes the relationship between two onscreen characters. For all the songs on this album, "Suspirium" is probably the most notable of the vocal-led tracks. The song is a beautifully tragic waltz. It’s a bare-bones track that only employs voice, piano, and flute. This skeletal structure allows each instrument to stand out. "Suspirium" is elegant. It rings with melancholic emotion. It’s one of the strongest songs of Thom Yorke’s career.
Arguably, the most essential track on the album is "Volk". The story of Suspiria takes place in a prestigious dance academy. The art of dance is used as one of the story’s plot devices with an elaborate dance piece positioned immediately before the movie’s climax. "Volk" is the song that accompanies the dance. This puts a lot of pressure on Yorke. If the song he wrote for this scene fell flat, the entire film would have suffered. Luckily for everyone involved, "Volk" is a success.
"Volk" comes in slow. It buzzes and shrieks until a series of thick synth keys pound in. The melodic patter laid out by these keys repeats over and over, each time with a slightly different sound and intensity. At a little over two minutes into the song, a new melody comes in like a wave, overtaking the original. Scraps of sound pierce and ricochet through the onslaught. Toward the five-minute mark, drums roll in. The original melody resurfaces. "Volk" is a curated mess. It’s a track that fights within itself. It’s suffocating. But it’s all intentional, well-timed. It works within the film and it stands on its own as a complex work of art.
There is a lot much going on with this score, and Yorke does a wonderful job containing it. Reprising piano tones and repeating melodies are spaced throughout the work to keep it centered. But the differentiating styles may push some listeners away. There is also an issue of time. At eighty minutes and fifteen seconds, this album is long. (The film is also quite lengthy.) It may be overwhelming to some listeners.
Other than that, there are very few criticisms to be drawn from this work. One of the song titles is a minor plot spoiler. This may annoy moviegoers who pick up the soundtrack before seeing the film. And there is some slight surface noise on some of the original pressings. While the average listener probably won’t mind, audiophiles will want to wait for a cleaner up release.
The artwork is simple and stunning. An arm dances, cutting and curving along the left side of the frame. It pulls the viewer’s eye to the disjointed font that spells out the artist and soundtrack names. Open-palmed hands lie above and below the title. The hands are marked with the hamsa, a protective symbol that has been used by Muslim, Jewish, and Christian religions, to ward off the evil eye. The color choices make the image pop. The layout decision gives it movement. The symbolism makes it foreboding. Designers Stanley Donwood, Doktor Tchock, and Agnes F. give the viewer a lesson in visual art. Something doesn’t have to be detailed to be successful. It just needs to be smart.
The vinyl is packaged in a matte gatefold sleeve. The inner fold echoes the artwork on the cover; images of pink hands bent in contorted dance. The vinyl itself is held in envelopes with artwork that is more direct. There is a character in the film, Patricia, who keeps a journal of her observations and fears. She doodles in this journal, draws charts. These are reproduced exactly and worked into the artwork. Additional, and in the same style, there are scribbles of Thom Yorke’s lyrics. It’s a good way to pull these two worlds together.
Thom Yorke was hesitant about taking this project on. He initially refused. But Luca Guadagnino pressured him. The director had a vision. He wanted to take the original movie and filter it through his own artistry. Argento’s 1977 film leans heavily on visual expression, Guadagnino communicates through thematic density. His is a movie of layers; the main storyline is underlined by matters of gender equality, political schism, grief, regret, and Jungian psychology. He knew that he needed the right score to support this. He knew that it couldn’t be something too dynamic or distracting. He knew that he needed something complex, but nuanced, something subtle but effective. He knew that he needed Thom Yorke.